Veteran stars worth the ride in entertaining ‘Stand Up Guys’
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and why should you, when the old tricks work as well as they do in Stand Up Guys? The pleasure of watching three veteran actors do what they do best is its own reward in this wistful crime comedy from director Fisher Stevens. Plotwise, it may look like nothing special, but the combined one-two-three punch of co-stars Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin turn it into an entertaining, funny, and surprisingly moving morality play on aging, friendship, and what it means to do the right thing.
Scripted by rookie Noah Haidle, Stand Up Guys begins at the end of a 28-year prison term for small-time crook Valentine (Pacino). Val went up the river for his part in a robbery organized by a mob boss called Claphands, whose son was killed in the resulting shootout. Val is proud of the fact that throughout his incarceration, he never ratted on the organization he was working for.
On the day he’s released, Val is met by his oldest (and only) friend, Doc (Walken), who takes him home to his small, cluttered apartment in a shabby part of town. Doc claims he’s retired; he gets up early to paint sunrises (his little canvases cover the walls), and watches cable TV at night. But we soon discover there’s one more job Doc has to do—he’s been ordered by Claphands to kill Val by 10 o’clock the next morning. And it doesn’t take long for Val to figure it out too.
What follows is a picaresque, all-night odyssey as Doc tries to indulge his pal’s understandable desire to party after so many years out of action. First stop is an innocuous neighborhood brothel out in the ‘burbs (Lucy Punch is terrific as the toothy, wholesome young proprietress, daughter of the previous madam). Which necessitates the buddies breaking into a pharmacy after hours for a bottle of Viagra. (While there, instead of plundering party drugs, Doc stocks up on pills for cataracts and hypertension—too expensive on his insurance—which Val grinds up and snorts anyway.)
When they steal a flashy new car with a push-button starter, they decide to bust their old pal and former getaway car driver, Hirsch (Arkin), out of a rest home. He disengages from his oxygen mask and joins the fun. A car chase proves he hasn’t lost his touch behind the wheel, while his droll, deadpan fatalism matches Doc and Val’s perfectly. “They took something out of me awhile ago,” he tells them. “What?” they ask. “I don’t know, I didn’t ask. It was none of my business.”
The movie works best when these guys are just yakking together. They make the most of every line—as when Walken’s Doc considers a notorious rival gang: “These are the type of guys who take your kidneys out—and don’t even sell them.” (It’s all in the inflection, and the timing.) In a bar, Val’s Neanderthal moves on a quartet of young women get the reaction they deserve. But when he returns, humbled, and quietly persuades one of them to give him just one dance, Pacino finesses the moment with more charm, gallantry and heart than in his entire, two and-a-half-hour, Oscar-winning performance in the misbegotten Scent of a Woman.
It would be nice if there was at least one vintage stand-up gal in the story, in counterpoint to all the nubile young females who fall so readily under the spell of these old-timers. (A subplot about a naked young woman and the guys’ chivalrous response not only makes no sense logistically, in terms of where and how she’s discovered, but the episode feels like an attempt to be PC by a young male writer who can only imagine feminism as a female sexual revenge fantasy.)
On the other hand, Doc’s bond of friendship with a very young all-night diner waitress (a lovely Addison Timlin) delivers just the right emotional resonance as the buddies head for their last fateful sunrise and the (alternative) reckoning we always knew was coming. Stand Up Guys may strain a bit too hard to enter the realm of mythic male fantasy, but these pros are so much fun to watch, we’re happy to go along for the ride.
STAND UP GUYS
★★★ (out of four)
With Al Pacino, Christopher Walken, and Alan Arkin.
Written by Noah Haidle. Directed by Fisher Sevens.
A Lionsgate release. Rated R. 94 minutes.